In both Iran and North Korea, the Trump administration has pursued an aggressive policy of “maximum pressure” — crushing economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military threats — in order to thwart their nuclear ambitions. In both cases, “maximum pressure” has not only failed to achieve the desired goal but has had the opposite effect: ramping up tensions and hardening both countries’ resolve to obtain nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, sanctions are having devastating consequences for ordinary citizens in both countries.
Despite summit meetings and the exchange of what Trump described as “love letters” between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, peace between the two countries seems as out of reach as ever. At the end of 2019, Kim declared that as long as “the U.S. persists in its hostile policy towards the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula” and warned that the world will soon witness their “new strategic weapon.”
Maximum pressure took us to the brink of war with Iran. If we don’t change course, we will find ourselves in the same place with North Korea. It’s time for Washington, with its entanglements around the world testing the limits of its military and alliances, to reconsider its security objectives and course-shift away from endless wars.
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How Did We Get Here?
In the last year, it seemed as if the U.S. and North Korea were poised to make a historic breakthrough toward peace. If you ask U.S. officials, North Korea is entirely to blame for the lack of progress in negotiations. But by refusing to abandon the maximum pressure policy — the same failed approach we just saw result in disaster with Iran — the Trump administration may have botched its last opportunity to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
In a dramatic turnaround from threatening “fire and fury” in 2017, Trump took a decidedly friendlier route when he began meeting with Kim Jong Un in 2018. Engagement worked. North Korea took steps to build trust, including by voluntarily freezing its nuclear and long-range missile tests, beginning to dismantle a rocket launch site and a nuclear test site, and returning 55 boxes of remains of U.S. servicemen. The U.S., for its part, scaled down joint military exercises with South Korea, but the exercises continued nonetheless. The U.S. also stymied South Korea’s efforts to re-engage the North at every step.
At Trump and Kim’s second summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Kim reportedly offered to completely dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for the partial lifting of UN sanctions — a “big, big deal” that would eliminate the “heart of their nuclear program,” according to leading nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker. But Trump rejected the proposal and instead bluntly proposed that Pyongyang basically give up its entire weapons arsenal — a plan which North Korea had previously rejected.
Kim announced he would wait until the end of 2019 for the U.S. to come to the table with a different offer. But when the two countries’ negotiators finally met in Stockholm in October 2019, the North Koreans walked out, saying the U.S. brought “nothing to the negotiation table.”
North Korea repeatedly made clear that it will only resume negotiations when the U.S. has removed all threats to its security and development. North Korea closed out 2019 reiterating that point. At a meeting of the Central Committee of its Workers’ Party at the end of 2019, Kim criticized the U.S., saying its “true intention is to seek its own political and diplomatic interests while maintaining the sanctions to gradually deplete and weaken our strength.” He announced that his country “will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].”
The U.S. military intervention in Libya led Pyongyang to vow it would never follow the “Libya model” of denuclearization. Now the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani will likely only reinforce its resolve. After all, the Pentagon has already deployed attack drones in South Korea and worked out a plot to decapitate North Korea’s leadership. Not only has Pyongyang decided to tighten its hold on its nuclear weapons as a guarantee of its survival, it is also strengthening its alliances with Beijing and Moscow to tip the balance of power in its favor in a region that is vital to U.S.’s economic and political interests.
The pattern is obvious: when the U.S. is willing to engage in diplomacy and take reciprocal steps toward peace, it moves forward with North Korea. When it doubles down on sanctions and military exercises, talks fail. Just as it has in Iran, maximum pressure on North Korea will inevitably backfire.
The Human Toll of “Maximum Pressure”
“Maximum pressure” has also taken significant tolls on the ordinary citizens of Iran and North Korea. According to two recently released reports, sanctions are impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid in both Iran and North Korea. What’s more, sanctions against North Korea disproportionately impact women by targeting the industries in which they are heavily represented, such as textiles (82 percent of workers), by producing greater social disorder (which leads to increased gender discrimination and violence), and by harming their access to food, water and health care.
If broad-based sanctions are intended to result in policy changes, there are no signs of such a scenario playing out in Iran or North Korea. As the authors of “The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea” state, “studies suggest that sanctions are particularly prone to failure in this respect when they aim to force major policy changes, when they target authoritarian countries, and when they are tightened over an extended period of time. It has also been observed that sanctions can be counterproductive by actually cementing political unity — the so-called ‘rally around the flag’ effect.”
The Choice Before Trump, and Peace as the Way Forward
Now that North Korea has clarified that it will resume its nuclear weapons and missile development until the U.S. drops its “hostile policy,” the choice before the Trump administration is also plain: either prepare a political and military response to North Korea’s “new path” or end all hostile relations.
As long as the U.S. refused to drop its maximum pressure policy, Pyongyang has been honing its missile technology and strengthening its relationships with China and Russia. North Korea now has the ability to hit the U.S.’s largest overseas military base in South Korea with a missile that can evade the U.S.’s missile defense system. Russia recently announced that it put into service a hypersonic nuclear-capable missile system that can strike the United States at 20 times the speed of sound. China also unveiled the world’s longest-range intercontinental nuclear-capable missile, believed to be able to reach the U.S. in 30 minutes. Currently, the U.S. does not have a defense against either weapon. An alliance of China, Russia and North Korea poses a considerable challenge to U.S. supremacy in the region, especially if the current crisis with Iran further mires the U.S. in the Middle East.
The U.S.’s reflexive response to the tipping balance of power in the region is to rally South Korea and Japan into a trilateral alliance that cements Cold War divisions against China, Russia and North Korea. But this requires considerable arm-twisting of its allies. The Trump administration exerted unparalleled pressure on South Korea’s Moon Jae-in government to reverse its decision to terminate an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan — a key to the trilateral alliance. What’s more, the Trump administration recently demanded that South Korea pay $5 billion — five times more than in the past — for the cost of stationing U.S. troops there. This has sown growing resentment among South Koreans against the U.S.’s authority over their country’s affairs and could lead to irreparable fissures in the U.S.- South Korea alliance.
There is a more sensible option: make peace with North Korea. U.S.-North Korea relations have been governed by a fragile armistice for the past seven decades. In order to transition to a permanent peace regime, both sides need to pledge to not attack each other, agree on measures to eliminate the risk of future wars and discuss a plan for gradual arms reduction by all parties. To that end, the U.S. Congress can and should help forge that new path by passing H.Res.152, which calls for a formal end to this war that was supposed to be resolved more than a half-century ago.
Replacing the armistice with a peace agreement can also be the catalyst for a shift toward a multilateral peace and security system that facilitates cooperation between the U.S., China and Russia to gradually diminish the threat level — constructive for both Northeast Asia and the Middle East.
It’s time for the U.S. to reconsider its failed policy of maximum pressure and endless wars. It may have avoided escalation with Iran, for now, but it is most certainly headed back to collision with North Korea. And 2020, which marks the 70th year of the un-ended Korean War, may be Washington’s last chance to change course.